The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide some insight on the NFL's 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven't fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
Giff Smith came to Buffalo three years ago thinking what many still do about Kyle Williams — that the Bills defensive tackle was a good player, but one who needed superior effort to excel. In 2008, Williams had emerged as one of the best defensive linemen in the league — success that Smith attributed mostly to Williams’s relentlessness. “I was lulled into the ‘try hard’ perception about Kyle that’s out there,” Smith, who spent 2010 to 2012 as the Bills’ defensive line coach, says. “When I finally got to work with him, I saw a guy that could be a dominating player. He does play hard, don’t get me wrong. But he’s a lot more than that. That’s what I noticed when I started. I hadn’t given him enough credit.”
After a 6-10 finish last year, Smith and the rest of the Buffalo coaching staff were let go. But in his first few months as the Bills’ new defensive line coach, Anthony Weaver has familiarized himself with Williams in the same way as his predecessor. “The thing about Kyle is that he’s not your ideal, prototype defensive tackle in terms of size,” Weaver says. “But pound for pound, I’d say he’s the best athlete on this football team. I’d put him up against anybody — in any sport. The guy’s a scratch golfer. He’s a great swimmer. He goes and plays in some home run derby in Toronto and hits eight or nine home runs.”
It isn’t difficult to comprehend how buzz words like “effort” and “motor” have followed Williams, a 6-foot-1, short-armed fifth-round pick, throughout his career. But when he came into the league, the only hole in his résumé was his stature. Williams was a member of the 2003 national champion LSU team, and his senior season — Les Miles’s first in Baton Rouge — saw Williams garner several conference and national honors as the Tigers finished 11-2 and in the top six. He fell to the fifth round in the 2006 draft, which mattered for all of six months. By the end of his first season, he’d started more than 10 games even though the Bills selected another defensive tackle in that year’s first round.
As coaches and schemes have come and gone in Buffalo — at 13 years and counting, the Bills are the owners of the league’s longest playoff drought — one of the few constants has been Williams’s play. In his seven seasons, the Bills have had three defensive coordinators. This year, the arrival of Mike Pettine, formerly of the Jets, makes four. Buffalo has played both a 3-4 and a 4-3 in that stretch, and Williams has nominally held three different starting positions along the defensive line. But where he’s lined up has mattered little. In 2010, as the listed starter at nose tackle in George Edwards’s 3-4 defense (Williams still played a lot of defensive tackle in varied fronts), he made a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year. Much of the next season was lost to injury, but last year, as the 3-technique in Dave Wannstedt’s 4-3 scheme, Williams was once again among the top defensive tackles in the league. According to Football Outsiders’ game-charting numbers, only Geno Atkins and Ndamukong Suh had more quarterback hurries among defensive tackles, and only J.J. Watt allowed fewer average yards on run tackles among defensive linemen. Those are the names — the only names — that should be mentioned alongside Williams.
Late-round picks often arrive at their first training camp hoping to outperform their draft status. Williams was not one of those guys. “It never really dawned on me, trying to make a team, trying to get a spot,” Williams says. “I just assumed all that would take care of itself because of the way that I worked and I played. That eventually my coaches and my teammates would see it and want me out there as much as possible.” As he paid more attention to the NFL in college, he saw a league full of players he’d bested during his time in college. A couple years, a different uniform, and a paycheck didn't change anything. “I was all-conference, an All-American as a senior, and I’m playing essentially with the same guys, coming from the Southeastern Conference,” Williams says. “There was never a doubt in my mind that my game wouldn’t translate over.”
Buffalo’s first-round pick in Williams’s class was another defensive tackle, John McCargo from NC State. McCargo, taken 26th overall, was a controversial pick even at the time, as most experts had him penciled in as Round 2 value, at best. He played in five games as a rookie (and 44 total; by last year, he was out of the league). Williams started 11. “You can play football or you can’t,” Williams says. “I don’t say that to be cocky or anything like that, but some guys have a pretty good feel for it. Some guys have a feel for it; they just tend to make football plays.” The comment isn’t about McCargo, but it is indirectly about what teams tend to fall in love with come draft season. Potential is seductive, but instinct matters. And Williams had plenty of it.
His first few seasons followed a familiar trajectory. “I forget who said it,” Williams says, “but it was some defensive lineman who said that you’ve got one year to figure out if you belong here or not. Your second or third year — hopefully just your second year — is to prove yourself and solidify your spot, and after that, things tend to slow down. That’s when you make your hay. Sometimes it happens sooner for guys, sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.”
That third season, 2008, is when it all did slow down, and as Williams became more comfortable with identifying formations and tendencies, he effortlessly slipped back into being the player he was in college. The following year, Williams tore his MCL in Week 7 against Carolina, and for the rest of the season, the injury and the bulky brace that came with it slowed his production. It was the 2010 season, Smith’s first as Williams’s defensive line coach, that saw Williams emerge as one of the league’s truly elite defensive players. He was among the league leaders in hurries for a defensive tackle, and that year, no interior lineman played the run better.
Against the Super Bowl–bound Steelers in Week 12, Williams put together a dream game for a defensive tackle — eight run-stuffing tackles and two sacks. It was the high-water mark in an elite season for Williams. On a field with the AFC champions, it was the 2-8 Bills who had the best player. At season’s end, Williams was named to his first Pro Bowl, though he wasn't selected as a first-team All-Pro.
Williams knows what he does best. He knows how quickly he gets off the ball. Above is a play from Buffalo’s Week 2 game against Kansas City last year. Williams is hitting Chiefs guard Jon Asamoah before he’s even out of his stance, pushing him so far into the backfield that Williams doesn’t even need to tackle Jamaal Charles. Asamoah’s body does that for him. “He really puts pressure on the offensive lineman,” Smith says. “I remember talking to our guys in Buffalo and them saying ‘He’s on you so quick.’” This is obviously a product of pure agility, but it's also about preparation. Smith says that during his time in Buffalo there were texts, phone calls, and weekly meetings, all centered on exploiting the tiniest advantages. If the tilt of the center or a guard’s stance or a certain alignment gave away anything about when the ball might be snapped, Williams will find it. In Weaver’s short time with Williams, he’s noticed the same. “He knows when to take risks and when not to,” Weaver says. “They’re calculated risks. Typically, you need 11 guys on the same page, but there are times when a guy can shoot a gap when he’s not supposed to. He knows when he’s supposed to do that and when not to.”
The other X factor is Williams’s strength. There’s often a disconnect between what players are capable of in the weight room and how that strength translates to the field. Some struggle when it comes to practical application. Williams has no such problem. That much is clear on plays like this one, from the aforementioned game against Pittsburgh in 2010. At the moment Williams extends his arms on his punch, Chris Kemoeatu jolts backward, and the separation allows Williams to diagnose the play, shed the blocker, and make the tackle. It’s not as highlight-worthy as Watt swimming over a guard for a sack, but it’s the same sort of sudden, elite athleticism. Kemoeatu weighs around 350 pounds, and with one swift motion, Williams disrupts his stance and has him on his heels.
It all comes together on plays like this, from Buffalo’s Week 4 game against the Patriots. As a 3-technique on the back side of the play, Williams should get cut here, but he’s in the backfield so quickly that the 6-foot-8 Nate Solder doesn’t even have time to get that low. His strength allows Williams to shrug off the shoulder of the 320-pound Solder like he isn’t even there.
The underrated physical attributes are important, but what we see here is what Williams was referring to when he said that some players just have a knack for making plays. As both the nose tackle in a 3-4 and the “shade” (1-technique) in a 4-3, Williams took on plenty of double-teams early in his career. In Wannstedt’s defense a year ago, Williams shifted almost exclusively to the 3-technique, a change that Smith says contributed to the best season of Williams’s career and his second Pro Bowl. Williams explains that at either position, a double-team is likely to come, but at the nose, it comes immediately. As a 3-technique, help for the offensive lineman comes later after the snap, and with how quickly Williams often gets into the backfield, that help is often too late. At the 3, Williams is allowed to take advantage of his ability to create big plays in a way that nose tackles are not.
As the Jets' defensive coordinator for the past four seasons, Mike Pettine featured defenses with as many varying fronts as any team in the league. But what really made the Jets different were the alignments they’d implement to create exploitable matchups. In Williams, Pettine has a player who has played everywhere along the defensive line, the perfect fit for a scheme that asks its players to know, and thrive in, a variety of roles. Williams had surgery again this offseason to fix a bone spur that has been bothering him for years, and he says that when the season begins, it’s likely he’ll feel better physically than he has in some time. Healthy and playing in a scheme that figures to take advantage of everything he has to offer? This might be Williams’s best year yet.